Molecular biologists in Denmark, Australia and Canada are using pieces from NAU's dung collection to compare its DNA to dung they are finding. "To understand ancient dung, one must have a modern comparative collection, and we have one of the best there is," Mead notes. "It is extremely rare to have preserved fossil dung -- yet we have the best and most there are in any collection -- from Siberia to Tierra del Fuego to Argentina -- we have it."
Most of NAU's dung collection is dried and stored wrapped in tissue inside sturdy, archival cardboard boxes.
Mead opens a box of chunky 14,000-year-old mammoth dung and a slight scent of musty grass escapes. He points to the chomped blades of grass fossilized into the brown dried dung and surmises that the mammoth ate about 600 pounds of grass a day.
Mead currently is working with the National Park Service to figure out when bison were introduced to the plateau region. Previous research suggests bison dispersed into the Grand Canyon area more than 11,000 years ago, but with dating from dung, Mead knows that they roamed the plateau at least 23,000 years ago.
He also curates dung and skeletal collections for 22 national parks. Dung from the NAU collection also finds its way into public displays in museums, including the International Wildlife Museum in Tucson, Mesa Southwest Museum in Mesa and at the National Museum in Paris.
"It's no coincidence this dung collection is here," Mead says. "The Colorado Plateau is arid and replete with shelters and caves that are perfect for dung collection. Most other places in the world stay moist and the bacteria break down the dung."
Mead began collecting dung during his research at the University of Arizona in the 1970s. When he came to teach at NAU in 1985, Mead brought the collection with him and has since grown it by gathering dung from zoos and remote regions throughout United States and in places such as Africa, Cana
|Contact: Diane Rechel|
Northern Arizona University